Chaitya (Ćajtja) – Sculpted Abyss of the Caves

A type of Indian temple, mainly Buddhist, in the form of an elongated rectangular hall, divided by rows of pillars (Bhaja) or columns (Ajanta) into the main nave with a semi-circular apse, where the reliquary in the form of a stupa rises; it replaces the altar typical of the time of Ashoka (Aśoka) (circa 268 – 232 BC.). Two lower (side) aisles are composed of standing in one row pillars, primarily carved without capitals or bases (Bhaja), creating a circuit (ambit) around the stupa in the apse. The pillars/columns equally play a constructional function by supporting the mass of the barrel vault of the carved temple, which is decorated with ribs of arched timber beams.

Karli Chaitya section in perspective. Drawing of the “Great Chaitya” at the Karla Caves, when built, in about 120 AD. Photo from Percy Brown (1872-1955) – Indian Architecture, Buddhist and Hindu, published in 1956 Bombay, India (1955). Public domain. Drawing source: “Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Structures of this type are very monumental and decoratively sculpted and painted. The same model was repeated in a free standing temples of rectangular layout. In the rock-cut temples, the highly elaborated stonework is also visible in its façade, which creates a massive entrance; it opens to the outside of the rock with a horseshoe-shaped opening, also forming a kind of eaves. The stone facade happens to be richly sculpted and always closely imitates wooden elements of contemporary buildings both, inside and outside the temple; at the entrance there is a porch with a large ogee window, known as kudu or gavaksha, and a gallery comprised of balustrades forming balconies and blind lucarnes (dormer windows) with lattice railings.

Development of the Chaitya arch. Development of the chaitya arch from the Lomas Rishi Cave on, from a book by Percy Brown. Photo from Percy Brown (1872-1955) – Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu). First published in India in 1900. (1955). Public domain. Drawing source: “Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to Percy Brown, the prototype of Chaitya is to be found in sanctuaries belonging to the Ajivika sect associated with Jainism and Vaishnavism. Chaitya temples were carved in rock or built as free-standing constructions of stone, brick or wood. The wooden chaityas are known only from excavations, due to the perishable material. However, rock-cut temples with some wooden elements, which had been created since the third century BC., can be still found in Karla, Ajanta, Bhaja and Ellora caves. Yet, the actual date of the appearance of such temples is debatable and some scholars move it forwards in time to the first century BC. Since the first century AD. this type of temples had still developed, gradually enriching itself with new elements and ornaments, the evolution of which had continued until about the sixth century AD.

Featured image: Timber ribs on the roof at the Karla Caves; the umbrella over the stupa is also made of wood. Photo by Vatsalbhawsinka (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 30th January, 2021].

Auboyer J. (1975) Sztuka Indii [Les arts de l’Indes et des pays indianisés], pp. 56-57. Krzywicki J. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe.

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 80. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.